Posted by: standing_baba | March 25, 2010

A Dark Night Sky (and How to Camp Illegally on an Island in the World’s Largest Salt Flat)

Sunset before stars, Incahausi, Bolivia

“I have long thought that anyone who does not regularly—or ever—gaze up and see the wonder and glory of a dark night sky filled with countless stars loses a sense of their fundamental connectedness to the universe.” – Brian Greene, physicist

Isla Pescado---also known as Isla Incahausi---is where I spent the night

(Uyuni, Bolivia) Nine liters of water in bottles I pulled from the garbage; six bread rolls; four dollars worth of apples, oranges, and bananas; a small spinach bouquet (if that’s the right word) wrapped with box string; two red onions; one elongated and probably past due papaya; one pound of spiral pasta; enough bullion cubes to make even cactus taste like beef; all my warm-weather gear and a camp stove for evening tea—everything I needed to survive comfortably for three days fit inside my carry-on backpack. I was off to camp on an “island” called Incahausi exactly in the middle of the world’s largest salt flat, El Salar de Uyuni. Tour groups visit this dry oasis daily for breakfast, lunch, and the Matrix-like photo opportunities unique to the horizon-less terrain where the white floor blends seamlessly with blue sky. Instead of an expensive three-day tour I opted to take the local bus to Llica, a small village on the salt flat’s opposite side, then get off halfway. There was only one bus company in Uyuni that ran this lonely route where no roads exist.

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“Do the buses to Llica pass by Incahausi?”

Silence.

“Excuse me, could the drivers drop me off near Incahausi when going to Llica?” I asked a bit louder, confused by the one-woman office’s lack of interest in the only customer inside the small, dark room with a metal desk and several local business calendars nailed to the wall, all opened to January.

She looked up but not at me. The dusty light streaming through the doorway must have triggered…a thought. She was elsewhere. “I don’t know,” she replied to no one in particular.

“Who does know?”

A long childish pause. Alright, I thought, I’ll play. Staring at her, I waited for an answer. My backpack began to feel heavier. The cracks between the floorboards were full of dust.

“The drivers,” dropped from her mouth after close to a minute. She was cleaning her fingernails with the end of a hairpin. I was being given the run-around as if she was my girlfriend and I had forgotten our anniversary.

“When will they return?”

“I don’t know. The bus leaves tomorrow at noon.”

*****************************************

The next day at 11:00am my girlfriend was seated in the exact same position, alone in the dark room, behind her metal desk, scraping her cuticles with a bobby pin. From the sidewalk outside I anticipated another showdown of stubborn wills, each equally and inexplicably hardened, like battle-scarred soldiers who have forgotten why their fight began. I stepped through the door frame. She didn’t seem to remember me so I started fresh.

“Do the buses to Llica pass by Incahausi?”

Surprisingly, she responded unprovoked, with an uncanny knowledge of her industry.

“There are no buses today. They’re on strike.”

“Strike? Why?”

Silence. A long pause. I waited.

“Something about high prices. The drivers will arrive tonight around 7:00pm if you want to talk to them.”

“How long have they been on strike?”

“Since yesterday morning.” I chuckled through my nose.

“Why didn’t you tell me that yesterday when I was here?”

She looked up, squinting as if trying to decipher a complicated mathematical formula on the sun’s surface. It was obvious yesterday’s conversation was a chalkboard wiped clean. I walked out, amazed people like her exist.

*****************************************

All the tour agencies were on the same street. It didn’t take long to convince a driver to take me to the island for a reduced price. Just as I knew, the driver also knew that camping was prohibited, but my 50 bolivianos (US $7.14) bought his complicity. The four backseat Germans and lone Californian whose Bolivian father-in-law was shotgun were confused about my late arrival, but not so much as to ask questions when I piled in. I broke the silence with a simple introduction. Shy awkwardness gave way to conversation. All mentioned they had never met a Nebraskan before, as if I were an exotic specimen out of my natural habitat. With my backpack strapped to the roof, the jeep bounced down a gravel road toward the great salt flat, the arid landscape, roadside llamas, and mud-brick buildings nothing new on the horizon.

*****************************************

Workers drying salt

My fare included all tour activities until we arrived to the island. The first stop was a village with souvenir stalls that sold colorful knickknacks to captive tourists. Before tourism its main industry was salt processing, first by shoveling it into dump trucks on the flat itself, mixing it with iodine, baking it clean, bagging it by hand, and sealing the plastic bag with a flame. A 40 pound bundle costs approximately US $1.45. Not interested in souvenirs, I wandered through a back alley to where ski-masked workers were spreading salt to dry in the sun. As soon as they saw me with camera in hand they yelled to get out, to go back to the stalls. Thinking I wouldn’t understand Spanish, they called me a rich tourist bastard—along with more colorful language that’s better left unwritten. Their contempt for the affluent visitors that represented everything they would never have confirmed what I imagined since our arrival: we were not welcome.

Without comment, I walked back to the main road. A tourist had a traditionally-dressed indigenous women and her baby against the wall, photographing them without words, without even a thank you in Spanish. Israeli backpackers had climbed atop a rusty pick-up and were posing like top models, their iPods and SLRs shiny compared to the all-dusty scene around them. Suddenly the young womens’ short shorts seemed offensive, this false parade lost its color, and the town’s collective resentment had a face. I looked just like the other travelers, but felt a world apart.

*****************************************

Salt piles

Next we passed through an area where workers harvested salt from sectioned tracts of the flat, leaving the neat piles to be later shoveled into trucks.

Flags outside salt hotel

Inside view of hotel

Later we visited a salt hotel whose quirky remoteness made it photo-worthy. Chairs, walls, beds, picnic tables, the bar—all were perfectly stacked blocks of salt. The flags outside represented the visitors who tour the area. Israelis are by far the most numerous, but had a reputation among the guides as the least respectful and most difficult to manage.

*****************************************

En route to Incahausi Island we passed a memorial site where 16 Japanese and Israeli tourists had died in a head-on collision in 1998. A large star of David and wilted flowers scattered across the charred salt marked the exact location where the jeeps exploded. Vehicles can travel anywhere in the 4,086 square miles of salt. It was surreal to see open space stretching in all directions and know that exactly below our tire tracks such a senseless accident had occurred. It’s believed all were drunk—including the driver—but no one will ever know, the truth blew away with the wind.

*****************************************

View from atop island

Incahausi Island is a cacti-studded hill surrounded by an ocean of salt. When we arrived jeeps lined the north side—the same where the restaurant was located and entrance fee was collected to hike up the hill—their tailgates opening toward the salt-block tables in order to prepare picnic lunches. It felt like a beach party. While my group climbed toward the view I made friends with some meat-weary Irish girls who offered me the steaks their guide grilled for them. After an hour of conversation, two full lunches with various tour groups, and a large raw steak gifted to me by a guide, the jeeps drove off to their next destination, leaving me alone with the island. I hiked up opposite the tourist complex, hidden by the bend and humbled by the view while avoiding the cacti spikes that littered the unmarked path.

*****************************************

The distant weeping volcano

Scanning the horizon, I could have been on another planet, the sole survivor of a nuclear holocaust, the last man alive. The jeeps that exited before sunset became scurrying ants in the distance, then disappeared altogether, swallowed by mountain outlines, erased by the only black in the sea of white. Though the nearest volcano appeared to be within walking distance, it stood an ominous 80 kilometers away observing existence’s undeniable sadness—its tears the salt’s source according to Quecha legend. The island was mine for the night. I was alone with a crying God and silent birds that fell backward off cacti, caught themselves mid-air, and fluttered upward to do it again—a playful reminder that everything is cyclical, that nothing should be taken too seriously. The sound of silence is not silent at all. It’s a constant ring that shook my mind’s need to control until I observed without thought, without prejudice, and was colored nothing by the internal buzz.

*****************************************

Cave near campsite

Somewhere at the base of the mountain, along the party beach, near the restaurant, behind the ticket booth, lived one lone security guard. I had overheard this fact during lunch. What this man guarded I wasn’t sure but thought it best to avoid him, me being an illegal castaway on his island in the sun. He and I were the only two humans within hours driving distance, the only two in existence once the sun hid behind the planet. Doubting his resolve to secure the premises, I pitched my tent at the main trail’s end that was marked an offering site to Pachamama—Mother Earth in Quecha. It was the highest point, a perfectly level dirt patch, with a 360-degree view of the surrounding salt flat and the flattening of the sun’s primary colors against the cloud-stained atmosphere.

Camping with Pachamama

No sooner did I pound the last stake when a man in his mid-twenties sprinted up the trail with a sheepish German Shepard at his heels. It was a routine run, half exercise, half duty to see if the jeep guides left anyone behind. He was surprised to see me and cautiously approached the rock where I sat peeling an orange. I answered all his questions honestly about my intentions and visit’s purpose, if not naively when it came to the island’s no camping rule. He wanted to charge me the entrance fee plus a camping charge. I’d have to come down to the shore immediately.

Sunset over Salar de Uyuni

Oranges and reds from the Earth’s underbelly flooded the flatness below. The sun refused to let the day drift to night. Clouds glowed a mystic blue from the light’s reflection off the white floor. The salt prepared for the cold ahead by kissing the fire colors goodnight before shrinking into itself. My site overlooking the world was too good, the view too amazing, the moment too beautiful—I didn’t want to leave.

Avoiding his request altogether, I told him I was about to cook a spinach, onion, and beef stew, that there was plenty of bread to clean the pot, even fruit for desert. I invited him to join me. That’s all it took. Just like that, I made a friend. His name was Marco; the dog Lassie. We chatted as I cut the vegetables and the blue flame bubbled water for hot tea. He asked about the United States, claimed Italians were the main visitor to the island, and explained he returned to his village on the flat’s border just once a month. He pointed, some 80 kilometers away the village had just begun to flicker with electricity. Ever since the restaurant’s solar panels were stolen he had been on permanent night watch with Lassie.

After dinner he said I could stay, but asked that I pack up before the morning tourists stormed the hill, that I hike out the same way I hiked in. He was especially concerned that the guides not see me. Several agencies wanted to promote the island as a camping destination—I could see why—then charge foreigners an inflated overnight fee. The municipality that managed the island recognized that such an influx of campers would damage the fragile environment. Marco commented that the Israelis drank too much and would leave litter just as they do below on the beach.

It was dark now. The moon was a stage light hung in the corner of the sky. Upon finishing his plate, Marco stood, shook my hand, and thanked me for the conversation. After a few steps he turned to recommend that I stargaze before dawn. “That’s when the stars are like a blanket across the sky.”

*****************************************

My imagination brought rock piles to life

By moonlight I climbed down the mountainside toward the salt flat. Respecting Marco’s wish that nobody knew I was there, I tucked the flashlight in my pocket and planned to use it only if absolutely necessary. In the dark the cacti looked like soldiers awaiting orders, thousands upon thousands with icy stares, all just a syllable away from invasion. Stone piles were cross-legged yogis in silent meditation. At one point I stopped, held my breath, and reminded myself I was alone—just feet from my path a rock pile looked exactly like an Indian staring at the moon with hands on his knees.

I was alone, but the island was alive. Anything seemed possible. A few times while lowing my body down short cliffs with both arms I retracted my hands quickly from crevasses, instinctively thinking a rattlesnake or eel could bite down, despite the fact that not even snakes could exist in this waterless land. Moon illuminated everything a dull blue, including my skin. I didn’t seem real, and me not being real seemed as just as probable as my previous reality atop the mountain.

The island was once ocean reef. I saw several round rocks smoothed by rain and water that in a former life had been brain coral. I imagined black and yellow and white striped minnows darting around my hand-holds, algae swaying with the waves, Paleolithic fish with saw-like mouths. The rocks were sharp volcanic slate that cracked and splintered with each step. A bad foot placement sent rock layers sliding down the vertical incline, crack, crack, crack, until soft cactus meat dulled their escape.

When I arrived to the shore I hesitated—the moon-lit salt seemed a foamy ocean or the thin border of a frozen lake. Looking over my shoulder, the island was now a solid black wall that climbed vertical toward the stars. Nothing but black could be seen in its outline. My path down disappeared completely into its shadow.

With one foot on salt, the other on rock, I began to feel something separate from my body. It told me to push outward. I walked and walked away toward the invisible horizon, checking occasionally to see if the island was still there. The moon lit the floor like one continuous ivory piano key that crunched under each step. Salt veins formed octagons and hexagons, perfect patterns that repeated musically, like an unexplored island chain out that makes ocean and sea one.

My walk off-balanced the silence and complimented the subtle ringing in my ears. Silence doesn’t exist. As I distanced myself from land—or land distanced itself from me—, time, distance, perception, and reality melted into a white purgatory where the only thing that mattered was to balance wit and control while strolling farther into the unknown, the way instinct indicates the exact moment to swim back when playing in dangerous waves.

A bluish white engulfed everything. The world began and ended with my eyes. I walked until my island became a dot. There was no horizon on which to place it. It floated above white, just a dark spot in the blue-lit infinity of this limitless space I had decided to explore. Onward. My island was barely visible now, a few more steps and it would be gone. Goosebumps covered my arms, despite being bundled up and wrapped in scarf. I felt giddy with my aliveness, as if with any step I would fall into a time warp that had opened just for me, only at that exact time and place, trillions of atoms aligning to show me the unknown. It was as if I had discovered a new dimension between the cracks of my normal reality, without drugs or sex or meditation, just by listening to some message that called me down from my sleeping bag on a mountain to the flat endlessness of the now wrapped in moonlight and invisible edges.

I sat down on the salt. Then laid back to watch the stars, but it was impossible: the moon had conquered the night. I’d have to wait until dawn to see the blanket unfold against the night sky.

*****************************************

From inside my sleeping bag atop the mountain, I waited. The cacti soldiers and Pachamama too, but their existence began and will end with the same quiet waiting in which humans are rarely able to endure, let alone understand. My bag’s hood opened to the constellations. The moon was waning weaker now somewhere behind my view. As the constellations drifted across the universe, moving in cookie cutter shapes through the cosmos, and I in and out of sleep, I felt for a moment that I had visited another world, that this night was a lesson in limitations, that perception lies and reality will imprint itself with a forever cattle brand on your mind unless you fight and struggle and kick your way out of its constrictive borders. If you can imagine it, it is out there, above us or below us, but it is out there. If you can dream it, it can be done and will be done eventually.


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